José Saramago: writer, communist, iconoclast. Also a Nobel Prize laureate and, more recently, a blogger. The Guardian UK reports that Saramago died today at age 87.
Saramago is, for somebody like myself who is merely a reader of his work, difficult to eulogize or to mourn.
For so many of his characters, and even the narrator, who ever so often directly addresses the reader to offer criticisms and reassurances, live out their stories either in anonymity or trapped by antonomasia, becoming only the doctor's wife, the interior minister, the boy, etc. Saramago, at least as a literary persona, tried to disappear behind these other voices. In his Nobel Lecture, he states:
I can clearly see those who were my life-masters, those who most intensively taught me the hard work of living, those dozens of characters from my novels and plays that right now I see marching past before my eyes, those men and women of paper and ink, those people I believed I was guiding as I the narrator chose according to my whim, obedient to my will as an author, like articulated puppets whose actions could have no more effect on me than the burden and the tension of the strings I moved them with.
In reflecting on his own writing, Saramago drew the conclusion he learned something from each story. Certainly a consoling statement in abstraction, but what he learned is hardly the kind of self-congratulatory humanism that is today's ideological currency. Saramago always found the reverse; every traditional sacred object was, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, much more a document of barbarism than a document of culture. And like Benjamin, the task was to see this egalitarian-- here, communistic and iconoclastic-- insight through to its conclusions, which were most aptly realized in his novels Blindness and, in my opinion, the much stronger 'sequel' Seeing.
Hence it's hard to mourn and to eulogize a writer, who, in Death with Interruptions, had twisted the idea of personal immortality around into a burden. The book opens when, in an unnamed country, people stop dying on midnight of New Year's Day, a change that is initially celebrated by its citizens, but quickly deteriorates into calamity. Far from Paradise, immortality proves to be undignified as daily life becomes haunted by the near-dead, for, certainly, the absence of death does not stop aging or accidental casualty.Very quickly people begin to look for ways to let people die, until, one day, months later, death returns.
Perhaps it's inappropriate to draw a conclusion about Saramago from one of his novels, but it seems to me that he would have recognized that death, as he notes in his Nobel Lecture, is "a pity," but the alternative is worse. At best, the writer has the chance to document the barbarism endured by so many, to capture the "human dignity [that] is insulted every day by the powerful of our world." At best one can be an echo of some of these voices of protest and affirmation, voices that bear witness to the fact that one of the fallen ought to be mourned, and yet there's still a world to be won. Perhaps here it is possible to conclude. Saramago, comrade, writer, iconoclast:
I conclude. The voice that read these pages wished to be the echo of the conjoined voices of my characters. I don't have, as it were, more voice than the voices they had. Forgive me if what has seemed little to you, to me is all.